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The man to succeed Merkel? Armin Laschet elected new CDU chair

Armin Laschet, state minister for North-Rhine Westphalia, was elected the new chairman of Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on Saturday. The victory means a continuation of centrist policy for the CDU, and suggests that Laschet could be the man to lead the party to the polls and potentially succeed Merkel in Germany's federal election later this year.

Photo: "Armin Laschet" by Medienmagazin pro is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The upcoming election, due to take place on 26 September, will mark the departure of one of Germany’s longest-serving Chancellors. Angela Merkel has led Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for the last 16 years and, throughout her four terms, has embodied conservative centrism, the social market economy and stability. This has benefitted Germany and the EU throughout an era of crises, namely the Global Financial Crisis, the European Debt and Migrant Crises, Brexit and Covid-19.

At the 33rd state party conference on Saturday, the CDU was faced with a choice of philosophy and direction. The outsider and 'dark horse' candidate Norbert Röttgen took a more dynamic, progressive approach to CDU centrism. After failing to become the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2012, he became the environmental minister and is currently the chair of foreign affairs.

This motivated Röttgen’s policy focus on climate change, digitalization, migration and the rise of China. He had hoped his leadership would modernise the CDU. However, it seems the majority of the party are not yet ready for his approach, which also featured heavily in marketing on social media, as Röttgen was eliminated with 224 votes in the first round.

In stark contrast to Röttgen, Laschet’s closest rival turned out to be archconservative Friedrich Merz. In the first round of voting, Merz edged Laschet by 5 votes (385-380), before Laschet won the chairmanship with 521 to Merz’s 466 votes. A vote for the pro-business Atlanticist Merz, who has been critically dubbed as ‘the German Donald Trump’, would have seen a shift to the right by the CDU for a politician who had a notoriously bad relationship with Merkel’s centrism.

The millionaire lawyer Merz was intent on winning back votes from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. However, he suffered what is now his third defeat, having already left politics once following the loss of party leadership to Merkel, before returning only to lose it again in 2018.

2018 saw the election of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, perceived by many to be unofficial Merkel’s chosen heir, a continuation of style and ideology. Despite this, it was her short-lived leadership and resignation which allowed Laschet to take her place.

The final candidate in the running in 2018 alongside Merz and Kramp-Karrenbauer was Jens Spahn. In comparison, the German Health Minister has made a name for himself during the coronavirus pandemic, and made progress recently as Laschet’s right-hand man. Their partnership has come so far that Spahn even used his delegate Q&A slot at the convention to advertise Laschet and his campaign.

Despite Laschet's victory, many believe that the race to lead Germany’s biggest party into the 2021 election is not yet over. According to a survey by pollster Civey for the Munich-based Focus magazine, 8.7% of Germans predict Laschet’s closest ally Jens Spahn will still double-cross him. In addition, only 12.1% of surveyed people thought Armin Laschet should be the CDU’s candidate in September. Instead, 43% would prefer Markus Söder, Bavarian state minister and chair of the CDU’s sister party of the state, the Christian Social Union (CSU) to lead the union.

Although the CDU is currently polling at a proportion almost twice the size of their nearest rivals, the Greens, new party chairman Laschet must first prove himself to the public and solidify his position within the party before he can consider his vision for post-Merkel Germany.


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